How Writing Changed Society

Once writing is introduced to a culture, there are recognizable changes in the culture that are attributed to the changed information technology systems, and especially the ability to store information indefinitely. Scholars find evidence of similar changes as writing was introduced to cultures on different continents and in different centuries. Historians Michael Hobart and Zachary Schiffmann (1998) suggested that written records were first used for accounting and it first introduced the concept of standardized and unchanging information to humanity. Written words are the convergence of speech and image, and thus speech becomes both visible and storable. Hobart and Schiffmann (1998) observed that the earliest writing contained both accounting-like features and speech-like features, but that “Only as writing began to break free of accounting and pattern itself more thoroughly upon speech, did it constitute a new technology of communication” (35). Gleick (2011) argued that much of the reflection and the logic that are understood to be part of thinking were not possible before the indefinite memory of the written word. Scholars recognize several generalizations that can be made about literate cultures that differentiate them from cultures demonstrating primary orality.

Gateway Skills

Whereas primary orality is possible through the biological development of a human, reading and writing must be developed within a culture and typically require special instruction. Individuals will have differing levels of expertise with literacy skills; those with lesser skill become marginalized and experts tend to have increased economic, social, and political power and prestige in literate cultures. Priests, scribes, lawyers, and teachers are among the writing technicians who have gained power and prestige and economic resources in literate cultures.


Whereas cultures with primary orality embed lessons in situations that are communicated through stories; in literate cultures lessons are expressed as abstractions and generalizations. Writing allows individuals to organize and plan behavior relative to general rules and also for individuals to analyze large stores of unchanging information to elaborate general theories by comparing them to ideas that are stored. Ong (1982) suggested the introspection necessary for monolith religions and for science is possible only after the abstraction and generalization introduced to a culture through writing.


Because writing allows for information to become permanent, writing leads literate cultures to standardize social interactions in a way that is not possible in cultures with primary orality. As a result, many ideas and practices in business, religion, and law that became the basis for industrial-age and information-age legal and economic systems are possible only through writing. Jack Goody (1987) suggested that writing enabled standardized assessment of the value of goods and services that allowed for division of labor, coin and currency, and standardized weights and measures that became the media of commerce and science. Goody also suggested religious texts allowed abstraction of the supernatural and for clear boundaries between adherents to different belief systems to be identified. Goody further suggested that writing allowed for several tools that have been used to legitimize the economic and political control by those in authority. Titles and deeds that formalize land ownership, signatures that serve as substitutes for an individual, and the formal concept of evidence in legal proceedings are all possible in literate cultures but not in cultures with primary orality.

With the introduction of writing, the potential for permanent records and the reflection on those permanent records enters a society. This leads to both a standardization of practices and a permanence of records that is not available without writing. The skill necessary for reading and writing does lead to a hierarchy that contributes to the marginalization of less skilled individuals and groups in text-rich fields. Scholars have also observed that while writing introduces these changes to cultures but they only become widespread when print is introduced to a society.


Gleick, James. 2011. The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood. New York: Pantheon.

Goody, Jack. 1987. The Interface Between the Written and the Oral. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Hobart, Michael and, Zachary Schiffman. 1998. Information Ages: Literacy, Numeracy, and the Computer Revolution. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press.

Ong, Walter. 1982. Orality & Literacy: The Technologizing of the World. New York: Routledge.